Theravada Buddhism’s Approach to Suffering Through the Lens of Identification

By Eran Dror




In this paper I shall explore the connection between identification and suffering in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. I will systematically review Theravada Buddhism’s approach to suffering through its canonical texts as well as modern scholarship, and show that identification, in the sense of considering something as identical with or as part of the self, provides a useful lens through which to interpret and understand how different aspects of the Buddhist path fit together in addressing the problem of suffering. My examination will proceed as follows:

  1. Defining Dukkha – To start with, I will examine the possible translations of the Pali word dukkha (Devanagari: दुक्ख), which has traditionally been translated as suffering, contrast dukkha with both physical pain and natural sorrow, and show that in the Buddhist context it likely bears a more philosophically specific meaning.
  2. The Self as Artificial – In the second part, I will review the Buddhist view on the illusory or constructed nature of the self, expressed in the Buddhist view of anattā (Devanagari: अनत्ता).
  3. What Causes Dukkha? In the third part, I will examine some of the most prominent passages in the Pali canon regarding the cause of suffering, and argue that the framework of anattā is essential for their correct interpretation.
  4. Self-Making and Dukkha – In the fourth part, I will show that clinging (upādāna, उपादान) and aversion (dosa, दोस) are viewed in the Canon as two ways of forging a self, and that it is this forging of the self which leads to dukkha.
  5. Letting Go of Self – In this fifth section, I will examine briefly the Buddha’s recommended Eightfold Path to the liberation from suffering, and in particular Right View, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration, which seem to target Selfhood most directly.
  6. Letting Go of Letting Go – Finally, I will examine some of the philosophical and psychological roadblocks and complications in the process of letting go of self, and the Pali canon’s treatment of them.


1. Defining Dukkha

Is Dukkha Suffering?

The Pali word dukkha, so central to the Buddha’s teaching, is usually translated as suffering. However, it is notoriously hard to define and translate, because plain usage in different instances point to meanings that go beyond our everyday understanding of the word suffering. Writes Rupert Gethin:

“Rich in meaning and nuance, the word dukkha is one of the basic terms of Buddhist and other Indian religious discourse. Literally ‘pain’ or ‘anguish’, in its religious and philosophical contexts dukkha is, however, suggestive of an underlying sense of ‘unsatisfactoriness’ or ‘unease’ that must ultimately mar even our experience of happiness. Since any pleasant experience, whatever its basis, is ultimately unreliable and subject to loss, if we rest our hopes of final happiness in it we are bound to be disappointed. Thus dukkha can be analysed in Buddhist thought by way of three kinds: suffering as pain, as change, and as conditions.”

In everyday parlance, the English word suffering is also tied to physical pain or at the very least emotional anguish. In technical philosophy, however, it is common to distinguish suffering from pain. Pain is seen as physical in nature, whereas suffering is mental. Pain is reducible to unpleasant sensations, whereas suffering contains within it a value-judgment, a rejection, an “unacceptability” which threatens the equilibrium of the person suffering in a way that goes beyond physical pain. Suffering, therefore, can be said to be the state one is in when one is forced to tolerate that which he regards as intolerable.

Indeed, the Buddha seems to have this difference in mind in the parable of the Two Arrows, when he promises his disciples a release from mental anguish, without in fact promising  a release from physical pain:

“Suppose they were to strike a man with a dart, and then strike him immediately afterward with a second dart, so that the man would feel a feeling caused by two darts. So too, when the uninstructed worldling experiences a painful feeling, he feels two feelings—a bodily one and a mental one… Monks, when the instructed noble disciple experiences a painful feeling, he does not sorrow, grieve, or lament; he does not weep beating his breast and become distraught. He feels one feeling—a bodily one, not a mental one.”

Suffering then, which the Buddha promises to eradicate in any number of Pali suttas, seems not to mean a release from physical pain, but a release from that “extra arrow”, that of rejection which considers the experience of pain as unacceptable, and causes a person to become distraught. Pain, this Sutta seems to imply, is inevitable. It is how we respond to it internally that determines whether or not we suffer.


Is Life Suffering?

But how does this fit with the notion that “Life as Suffering”, which is a common reading of the text in the Four Noble Truths? Doesn’t it contradict the very idea of liberation from suffering? First, let us examine the text of the Four Noble Truths itself, in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta:

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.”

Dukkha here does seem to be applied as broadly as can be imagined. The five aggregates (usually translated as material forms, feelings, perception, mental formations, and consciousness) represent in Buddhist thought a comprehensive list of all possible components of human experience. If all of them are suffering, then everything is. But the very formulation leads us to a different reading. The five aggregates are dukkha because they are subject to clinging (upādāna, Devanagari
: उपादान). The examples given also have this in common: they are all instances of reality clashing with our natural desires. The baby does not want to be ejected from the womb, a man does not want to grow old, get sick, and die. We do not wish to be united with the unpleasant or separated from the pleasant. Yet that precisely what life often forces upon us. This reading of the text would suggest that we should replace “Life is Suffering” with the more gentle “Life does not satisfy.” It connotes not a judgment of life according to human standards, but a simple recognition that human standards and desires are not taken into consideration by the vicissitudes of life. Life does not obey our desires.

A reinforcement of this understanding lies in this discourse in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, further elucidating the Four Noble Truths:

“Of these Four Noble Truths, bhikkhus, there is a noble truth that is to be fully understood; there is a noble truth that is to be abandoned; there is a noble truth that is to be realized; there is a noble truth that is to be developed. “And what, bhikkhus, is the noble truth that is to be fully understood? The noble truth of suffering is to be fully understood; the noble truth of the origin of suffering is to be abandoned; the noble truth of the cessation of suffering is to be realized; the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering is to be developed.”

We see here a pragmatic interpretation of the Four Truths: Suffering needs to be studied and fully understood. Once understood, its root cause must be abandoned. Once it is abandoned, a cessation of suffering is to be experienced, and finally, the path leading to a more permanent cessation is to be cultivated.


Is Sorrow Dukkha?

Another challenging aspect of understanding dukkha seems to be the question of sorrow. Is sorrow at the death of a loved one necessarily dukkha and to be abandoned? Should one remain untouched by the death of a loved one?

There are relatively few instances of sorrow and grief in the Pali canon, but those few seem to follow a similar pattern. In the Khuddaka Nikāya, a poem about Ubbiri, a grieving mother of the child Jiva who passed away years before, the Buddha is said to have taken pity on her and counseled her thus:

“‘Jiva, my daughter,’

you cry in the woods.

Come to your senses, Ubbiri.

84,000 all named Jiva

have been burned in that charnel ground.

For which of them do you grieve?”

These words may sound harsh when spoken to a grieving mother, but the Buddha’s lesson seems clear: Here as elsewhere, he points to the bigger picture. Turning a personal tragedy into an understanding of the tragedy of life, and thus trying to liberate the grieving person from his clinging to the narrower, ego-based aspects of the tragedy. This pattern seems to repeat itself whenever grief or sorrow is mentioned in the canon, but perhaps most notably in the Buddha’s relationship with his attendant Ananda.

The first instance of this happens when Sariputta, the Buddha’s greatest disciple, passes away. Ananda is inconsolable, as Sariputta was a great and beloved teacher to him. On seeing this, the Buddha admonished him thus:

“But have I not already declared, Ānanda, that we must be parted, separated, and severed from all who are dear and agreeable to us? How, Ānanda, is it to be obtained here: ‘May what is born, come to be, conditioned, and subject to disintegration not disintegrate!’? That is impossible.”

A few months later, the Buddha himself is on his deathbed. Even more tragically distraught, Ananda hides in his lodging and has to be summoned to the dying Buddha’s side, where the Buddha gently admonishes him thus:

“Enough, Ananda, do not weep and wail! Have I not already told you that all things that are pleasant and delightful are changeable, subject to separation and becoming other? So how could it be, Ānanda – since whatever is born, become, compounded is subject to decay — how could it be that it should not pass away? For a long time, Ananda, you have been in the Tathagata’s presence, showing loving-kindness in act of body, speech and mind, beneficially, blessedly, whole-heartedly and unstintingly. You have achieved much merit, Ananda. Make the effort, and in a short time you will be free…”

The Buddha’s answer, if we infer it from our understanding of the dual way dukkha is used in the canon, seems to be that this is precisely the dukkha one can expect from life, and that acceptance and preparation for it is the only thing that can help stop the resulting sorrow from expanding from the realm of simple and natural pain into the realm of suffering, or intolerability.

Across all these discourses and stories, dukkha as suffering emerges as something extra. Something unnecessary. Something that can be let go of. In this process of letting go, one does not change the “unsatisfactory” nature of reality or the pain it may sometimes inflict, but only one’s own internal relationship to it. And this, argues the Buddha, is enough.


2. The Self as Artificial

Before we can fully understand the Buddhist model of the generation of suffering we must, in my view, understand the Buddhist metaphysical view of Not-Self (anattā, Devanagari: अनत्ता). It is one thing to talk about non-clinging or non-identification in order to alleviate suffering, it is another to claim that this represents a clearer seeing into the nature of things, which Buddhism certainly does. One of the clearest example of this is in the Cūḷasaccaka Sutta about the Three Marks of Existence:

“Bhikkhus, material form is not self, feeling is not self, perception is not self, formations are not self, consciousness is not self. All formations are impermanent; all things are not self.”

Like the fact of impermanence (anicca) and unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), anattā is viewed as metaphysical. In other words it is not merely a psychological technique. To assume the existence of a unified, fixed self is not merely harmful, but factually wrong:

“These four, O Monks, are distortions of perception…

Sensing no change in the changing,

Sensing pleasure in suffering,

Assuming “self” where there’s no self,

Sensing the un-lovely as lovely.”

It is difficult to understand what the Buddha means when he talks about Not-Self, unless one looks at the particular examples given in the usual formula. In it, it the Buddha lists all the ingredients of experience: the body, feelings, perceptions, habits, and even consciousness, and denies that they represent a self. Writes Gethin:

“The gist of the Buddhist critique of the notion of ‘self’ is then this. It cannot be denied that there is a complex of experience going on; this can be conveniently analysed by way of the five aggregates. But where precisely in all this is the constant, unchanging self which is having all these experiences? What we find when we introspect, the Buddha suggests, is always some particular sense datum, some particular feeling, some particular idea, some particular wish or desire, some consciousness of something particular. And all these are constantly changing from one moment to the next; none of them remains for more than a mere moment. Thus, apart from some particular experience, I never actually directly come across or experience the ‘I’ that is having experiences. It is something entirely elusive. This looks suspicious. How can I know it is there? For it is impossible to conceive of consciousness apart from all these particular changing details, and if we abstract all the particular details of consciousness we are not left with a constant, individual ‘self’ but a blank, a nothing.”

Another way of understanding anattā is to ask not why there is no self, but why we might think that there is. If all one sees are particulars, what makes us assume there is a fixed and unchanging oneness at their core? Perhaps there is some mechanism involved, an optical illusion of sorts, that makes us think this way. Writes Richard K. Payne:

“Known as santāna in Sanskrit, this Buddhist concept explains the unity of the self as simply an appearance that results from the continuous “cause and effect series of bodily and mental events that constitutes human life and personality”… In addition to the metaphor of the stream, which despite being ever-changing appears to us to be a singular unity, other metaphors have been employed in Buddhist thought to express the same idea. One is the circle that we think we perceive when a flaming branch is wheeled about in the air at night… We know that there is no real circle of fire, yet that is what we perceive. The metaphor of the circle of fire points to the appearance of unity created by our perception.”

This view of a compounded self that only appears to be a unity is also strong in the Milinda Paiiha, in the famous allegory of the self to a Chariot:

“You, sir, have been reared in great luxury as becomes your noble birth. How did you come here, by foot or in a chariot?”

“In a chariot, venerable sir.”

“Then, explain sir, what that is. Is it the axle? Or the wheels, or the chassis, or reins, or yoke that is the chariot? Is it all of these combined, or is it something apart from them?”

“It is none of these things, venerable sir.”

“Then, sir, this chariot is an empty sound. You spoke falsely when you said that you came here in a chariot. You are a great king of India. Who are you afraid of that you don’t speak the truth?”

According to the monk Nāgasena in this classic dialog, the problem of the fixed self is identical with the problem of the chariot: It cannot be found in any of the parts, nor in between them, nor in their combination, nor anywhere else. Yet it would also be wrong to say it is complete nothingness. It seems that the Buddhist view of the self is not one of pure existence or pure non-existence. Instead, it follows the logic of what in some philosophical circles is called an emergent phenomena. It is neither a part of the system, nor the whole system together but rather a pattern that temporarily arises from the combination of the parts.

As a result, the Self loses its ontological standing and becomes a derived attributed at best, a persistent and harmful illusion at worst. Writes modern Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki:

“Of all the nouns we use to disguise the hollowness of the human condition, none is more influential than “myself”. It consists of a collage of still images – name, gender, nationality, profession, enthusiasms, relationships – which are renovated from time to time, but otherwise are each a relic from one particular experience or another. The defining teaching of the Buddhist tradition, that of non-self, is merely pointing out the limitations of this reflexive view we hold of ourselves. It’s not that the self does not exist, but that it is as cobbled together and transient as everything else.”

It this radical view of the self, distinct in Indian philosophy and at the time and rarely engaged with fully in the modern scientific traditions, that represents, in my opinion, the key metaphysical insight and innovation of the Buddha. With it in mind, it becomes much easier to interpret the rest of the teaching.


3. Self-Generation as the Cause of Dukkha

Now that we’ve properly grasped the “artificial” nature of the self in Buddhism, we can more readily interpreted this somewhat confusing Second Noble Truth, which claims to hold the explanation to the origin of all suffering:

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.”

The word translated as craving here is taṇhā
(Devanagari: तण्हा), which literally means “thirst,” but has also been translated as desire, greed, or grasping. Whatever it is, taṇhā seems to be the crucial motivating element in “renewed existence” which is the beginning of suffering. A more elaborate explanation of how this process comes from the discourse about Dependent Origination (Pratītyasamutpāda, Devanagari: पटिच्चसमुप्पाद):

“And what, bhikkhus, is dependent origination?… [W]ith the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, clinging; with clinging as condition, existence; with existence as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.”

In the Four Noble Truths, then, taṇhā or craving was described as leading “to renewed existence”, whereas in this more elaborate model craving leads to clinging, and it is clinging which leads to existence and the “whole mass of suffering.” Indeed, this model of the origin of suffering seems to be offering us a point of intervention: whereas taṇhā and the stages before it are automated functions of a physical mechanism, clinging (upādāna, Devanagari: उपादान) is a human action which we can refrain from doing.

The stages of Sensory Contact (phassa) and Feeling (vedanā, वेदना) do not seem particularly challenging to interpret – the first is broadly understood as the moment where an outside reality impinges on one of our senses. The second is described in the texts as the layer of experience which assigns to each sensation a pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling tone.

But what is this mysterious clinging, or upādāna? A lot has been written about it, and it has been translated as clinging but also as attachment, and grasping. Before we can fully understand the Buddha’s solution to suffering, we must understand as concretely and pragmatically as possible this commonplace human action. A clue for this, I believe, can be found in the following passage:

“Now, bhikkhus, this is the way leading to the origination of identity. One regards [various phenomena] thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self.”

Where I inserted various phenomena in brackets, the Buddha goes on to list a long list of elements including all the sense-contacts, as well as the body, mind, mind objects, and consciousness. In short – these appear to be the same five aggregates that were described in the First Noble Truth as “subject to clinging”.

With this in mind, we can interpret Dependent Origination as such: Sensory contact leads to pleasant and unpleasant feelings, those feelings lead to a kind of thirst or reflex to posses the pleasant feelings or avoid the unpleasant ones, which leads us to identify with some phenomena and consider it part of the self, while we separate ourselves from other phenomena and consider them not-self. This identification with and separation from phenomena effectively generates our self-perception, leading to the development of an artificial but nonetheless greatly suffering ego.

A more explicit analysis of the text along these lines comes from Andrew Olendzki:

“When an object is known by means of an organ, a moment of contact is born. This is the elemental unit of experience upon which our world of experience is constructed, and is an event that occurs rather than an entity that exists. Perception and feeling also arise in conjunction with this moment of contact, and the whole arisen bundle is further conditioned by a particular intentional stance or attitude. All this amounts to an elegant, but selfless, arising of interdependent physical and mental phenomena (formally labeled the five aggregates), in response to the presentation of information at a sense door. It functions similarly for a suffering worldling or for an awakened Buddha.

The process of constructing a self begins as an uninformed response to the texture of the ensuing feeling tone. Desire is a state of disequilibrium between what is arising and what one wants to be arising. The process is the same whether one wants vanishing pleasure to endure or one wants presenting pain to go away. In either case, desire can only manifest when a person who desires is created. The self (as a noun) is created as the (imaginary) subject of desire. This is selfing in action… What becomes clear through this analysis of moment-to-moment experience is that grasping is not something done by the self, but rather self is something done by grasping.”

Thus, it is the act of clinging to pleasant experiences or pushing away unpleasant experience that begin to define the boundaries of a separate self, a distinction between me, myself, and mine on the one hand, and and not-me, not-myself, not-mine on the other. This separation introduces, in the words of the Buddha, “the whole mass of suffering” – since we are now in basic conflict with the impermanence and basic unsatisfactory nature of reality.

In the Indian tradition, the connection between the narrow, personal self and suffering, and a larger, universal self as liberation, is as an old as the Upanishads. Buddhism is unique, however, in not offering an alternative, permanent, or divine self to hold onto once the personal self is let go of. Instead, the Buddha encourages his disciples to fully realize, strive for, and abide in emptiness of self, and he does so through teaching them to gradually recognize, let go, and cease the process of identification, as we’ll see.


4. Letting Go of Self

The Eightfold Path

Intellectually grasping the cause of suffering is not the same as letting it go. The Buddha seems to realize this, which is why the Four Noble Truths do not end after the mere understanding of suffering, but go on to include in the Fourth Noble Truth the outlining of a path for letting go. In this famous passage in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, he explains:

“I saw the ancient path, the ancient road traveled by the Perfectly Enlightened Ones of the past. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road? It is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”

I’ll put aside in this paper the ethical aspects of the path, including right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, and even right effort. While interesting and relevant in their own right, they present a relatively small interpretive challenge. I shall say only that they each, in their own way, seem to place limits on the natural desires of the self: Right intention is intention set on awakening, not self aggrandizement, right speech is truthful and sensitive to others, right action and right livelihood stress doing things that are beneficial to others and do not harm them, and right effort cautions against a life of laziness and complacence.

The other three aspects of the path, however, including right view, right mindfulness, and right concentration, deserve a deeper look as they seem to take our very notion of selfhood head on.


Right View

In order to let go of suffering, the Buddha says, one must understand impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self – the Three Marks of Existence. He explains:

“Whatever exists therein of material form, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness, he sees those states as impermanent…as not self. He turns his mind away from those states and directs it towards the deathless element…This is the path, the way to the abandoning of the five lower fetters.”

Right View must be systematically applied to all five aggregates subject to clinging, starting with  the body, as in this passage from the Majjhima Nikaya:

“…[T]his body made of material form, consisting of the four great elements, procreated by a mother and father, and built up out of boiled rice and porridge, is subject to impermanence, to being worn and rubbed away, to dissolution and disintegration. It should be regarded as impermanent, as suffering, as a disease, as a tumour, as a dart, as a calamity, as an affliction, as alien, as disintegrating, as void, as not self. When one regards this body thus, one abandons desire for the body, affection for the body, subservience to the body.”

This passage starts with a mild and even endearing description of the body procreated by a mother and father, and built out of boiled rice and porridge, and ends with an utter rejection of the body as self. The body, instead of inspiring love, should be viewed according to the Buddha as a disintegrating, diseased void. Not a thing one would wish to identify with.

The other elements of human experience are not exempt either:

“Feeling is impermanent…. Perception is impermanent…. Volitional formations are impermanent…. Consciousness is impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is nonself. What is nonself should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees this thus as it really is with correct wisdom, the mind becomes dispassionate and is liberated from the taints by non-clinging.”

Thus, Right View at its ultimate summit seems to be direct perception and incorporation of the Three Marks of Existence in the following order: First, one grasps the impermanence of things and experiences. Second, one grasps that impermanence necessitates unsatisfactoriness. Third, one grasps that the impermanence and unsatisfactoriness of everything means that nothing, absolutely nothing, can be said to be a fixed, unified, and essential self.


Right Mindfulness

But the practitioner who has learned the right view is still far from from overcoming the stubborn illusion of the self. In order to accomplish that, the Buddha set out a system of meditation which is described in detail in several suttas, most thorough of which is the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta:

“There is, monks, this one way to the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and distress, for the disappearance of pain and sadness, for the gaining of the right path, for the realisation of Nibbāna: – that is to say the four foundations of mindfulness. ‘What are the four? Here, monks, a monk abides contemplating body as body, ardent, clearly aware and mindful, having put aside hankering and fretting for the world; he abides contemplating feelings as feelings… ; he abides contemplating mind as mind… ; he abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects, ardent, clearly aware and mindful, having put aside hankering and fretting for the world.”

In the rest of this especially long Sutta, the Buddha presents detailed instructions and techniques of meditation centering around four “bases”:  the body, feelings, mind, and mind objects. Under each of those, a detailed listing of techniques follows. I won’t go into too much depth in analyzing these techniques, but let us examine just one such “base” – the body. Here are the initial instructions:

“So he abides contemplating body as body internally, contemplating body as body externally, contemplating body as body both internally and externally. He abides contemplating arising phenomena in the body, he abides contemplating vanishing phenomena in the body, he abides contemplating both arising and vanishing phenomena in the body. Or else, mindfulness that “there is body” is present to him just to the extent necessary for knowledge and awareness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. And that, monks, is how a monk abides contemplating body as body.”

One can already see from this short description the analytical, reductionist approach to the body which seems designed to disenchant the practitioner from the illusions of unity, permanence, or identification through simple observation. In the other techniques that follow, the practitioner is asked to focus on the body’s chemical makeup, its repulsiveness, its decay. The same is done with each one of the 4 “bases”, which map almost perfectly to the Five Aggregates. Through observance and interrogation, the practitioner is encouraged to see for himself the nature of the self and to realize anattā first hand. Writes Olendzki:

“The practice of meditation invites us to investigate the flux of arising and passing events. When we get the hang of it, we can begin to see how each artifact of the mind is raised and lowered to view, like so many flashcards. But we can also glimpse, once in a while, the sleight-of-hand shuffling the cards and pulling them off the deck. Behind the objects lies a process. Self is a process. Self is a verb.”

This process, which is described as personally challenging, allows one to see for oneself and reorient oneself to a selfless reality, and this orientation – once fully and firmly established – is Nibbāna. Writes Paul Williams:

“Nirvana is broadly speaking the result of letting-go, letting-go the very forces of craving which power continued experiences of pleasure and inevitably suffering throughout this life, death, rebirth, and death… Nirvana here is not ‘the Buddhist name for the Absolute Reality’ (let alone, God forbid, ‘the Buddhist name for God’). Nirvana is here an occurrence, an event (not a being, nor Being). Literally it means ‘extinguishing’, as in ‘the extinguishing of a flame’, and it signifies soteriologically the complete extinguishing of greed, hatred, and fundamentally delusion (i.e. ignorance), the forces which power samsara.”

What is Nirvana the cessation of? It is the cessation of unhelpful and unbeneficial states of mind, and the root cause of which (here termed ignorance or delusion) lies an interdependent, false view of reality and the self.


Right Concentration

If Right Mindfulness is so critical to the Buddhist path, what is the role of Right Concentration? In here, opinions are split. Many in the Theravada tradition claim that concentration meditation is a pre-Buddhist technique that the Buddha embraced but did not elaborate on. While true, I find the opposite opinion, the one that claims that concentration meditation is an essential component of the meditative path, more convincing. As Keren Arbel justly argues in her essay on the Liberative Role of Jhānic Joy, the Buddha describes using the concentrative techniques on the day of his enlightenment. In fact, right before it. And second – he specifically describes the various meditative attainments in his quest for a solution to suffering as an effective though temporary solution, bound to be over when the act of meditation ceases. Arbel writes:

“From this account it is quite clear that a mind in which these obstructions are not present is a mind where wholesome qualities are present, such as compassion, clear perception, mindfulness, full awareness, peacefulness, and confidence regarding what is wholesome (i.e., confidence regarding what is the path and what it is not)”.

With such a view of the concentrative states, it makes sense that through training the mind in various concentration techniques, one might begin to break the harmful patterns and habits by which the self is perpetuated, and is thus able to perform the type of mindful interrogation required to see and fully accept anattā.

But there is another, and in my mind greater relevance here: through concentration and the jhānic states one might, for the first time, realize the real and immediate possibility of the cessation of suffering, as suggested in the Third Noble Truth. It might be that concentration states play a role in shaping one’s view and intention through the mere exposure to a new, freer, though temporary state of mind. Arbel writes:

“These two suttas from the Saṃyutta-nikāya elucidate the dierence between ‘seeing clearly with proper wisdom’, that is to say, the cognitive insight that arises through seeing the nature of experience (which a sekha has achieved), and the actual experience of full freedom… To quench a thirst, just as to become an arahant, one needs more than seeing the way out clearly; one has to experience this quenching reality directly, which these two suttas describe as ‘touching with the body’. In just the same way, only by experiencing a di erent type of bodily and mental pleasure can one actually let go of the rooted desire for sensual pleasures.”

Thus, we begin to see the Four Noble Truths as an integrated, interdependent whole, designed to take a practitioner from intellectually grasping the fact of suffering, to recognizing its cause as self-clinging, to experiencing and realizing the potential for liberation, probably through concentrative meditation, and finally to developing a way of life that reinforces and cultivates one’s insight, wisdom, and comfort with a liberated mind.


5. Letting Go of Letting Go

Finally, Theravada Buddhism recognizes many difficulties and hindrances that may arise when one attempts to live without identification, indeed – without a fixed sense of self. First and foremost are the Five Hindrances, which prevent one from meditating properly and achieving insight.

“[T]here are these five corruptions of the mind, corrupted by which the mind is neither malleable nor wieldy nor radiant but brittle and not rightly concentrated for the destruction of the taints. What five? Sensual desire is a corruption of the mind… [Ill will is a corruption of the mind … Sloth and torpor are a corruption of the mind … Restlessness and remorse are a corruption of the mind … Doubt is a corruption of the mind… These are the five corruptions of the mind, corrupted by which the mind is neither malleable nor wieldy nor radiant but brittle and not rightly concentrated for the destruction of the taints.”

In other words, so long as one had not achieved Nirvana, one may expect to be distracted by desire, hostility, sleepiness or laziness, restlessness, and doubt. Those elements might throw one off the track by making the mind unwieldy and therefore making it hard to focus on the task of investigating one’s experience and gaining the necessary insights.

But even a man who has achieved those insights in meditation, it seems, might not be rid of identification or suffering forever. In his sermon to Sunakkhatta, the Buddha tells the story of a man who had been hit by a poison arrow. The surgeon manages to take the arrow out and extract the poison, all but a small residue. He then beseeches the patient to take care of the wound, eat suitable foods, wash the wound frequently, smear it with an ointment and avoid contamination of the wound. Instead of following his doctor’s advice, though:

“The thought would occur to the man: ‘My arrow has been pulled out. The poison has been extracted, with a residue left behind, but it is not enough to do me harm.’ He would eat unsuitable food, so the wound would fester. He wouldn’t wash the wound or smear it with an ointment frequently, so blood & pus would fill the opening of the wound. He would walk around in the wind & sun, so dust & dirt would contaminate the opening of the wound. He wouldn’t keep looking after the wound or work for its healing. Now, both because of these unsuitable actions of his and because of the residue of the dirty poison left behind, the wound would swell. With the swelling of the wound he would incur death or death-like suffering.

The relevance of this passage to the Buddhist path seems clear. It is not enough to have an insight into Not-Self, or even to let go of the self and all of one’s identifications in meditation. If one is to remain free, according to the Buddha, one must continually guard one’s senses and avoid renewed clinging and identification. Even a person advanced in meditative attainments might:

“…pursue unsuitable forms & sights with the eye. He might pursue unsuitable sounds with the ear… unsuitable aromas with the nose… unsuitable flavors with the tongue… unsuitable tactile sensations with the body. He might pursue unsuitable ideas with the intellect. When he pursues unsuitable forms & sights with the eye… pursues unsuitable ideas with the intellect, lust invades the mind. With his mind invaded by lust, he incurs death or death-like suffering.”

Finally, there is perhaps the gravest challenge of all – even for one who has reached a level of insight and training, and has guarded his senses to prevent from identification. And that is – identifying with the Buddhist perspective itself. “Bhikkhus, I shall show you how the Dhamma is similar to a raft,” says the Buddha in the Majjhima Nikaya’s Simile of the Raft,“being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.” Meditative attainments themselves, being so hard to come by and so esteemed by Buddhist, are another common object for clinging or identification. Against this, too, the Pali canon speaks:

“[A] true man considers thus: ‘Non-identification even with the attainment of [various meditative attainments] has been declared by the Blessed One; for in whatever way they conceive, the fact is ever other than that.’ So, putting non-identification first, he neither lauds himself nor disparages others because of his attainment of the base of [various meditative attainments]. This too is the character of a true man.”

Thus, the path of selflessness that Buddhism outlines does not allow one to rest on one’s accomplishments, hold on to them, or take them for granted. Instead, it applies the same logic of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self to the Buddhist path itself.    


Summary & Conclusions

In summary, I have argued that identification – in the sense of constructing a self through clinging and aversion, is a cornerstone of the Theravada Buddhist path, and that through it one might more clearly comprehend the structure of Buddhist philosophy and practice. I’ve presented the main principles of Buddhist thinking on suffering as follows:

  1. The world is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and completely empty of a fixed and unified self.
  2. If we allow the illusion of a self to arise in us through identifying or disidentifying with pleasant and unpleasant experience, we begin to form a self that is separate from the rest of existence and is therefore eminently vulnerable.
  3. Once a self is constructed, we begin experiencing the basic impermanence and unsatisfactoriness of life as as intolerable and unacceptable, this is suffering.
  4. By developing wisdom, or right view, we can begin to see the reality of this mechanism and develop a desire to overcome it.
  5. By developing right concentration, we can develop control over the mental habits that throw us repeatedly into this trap of clinging and identification, and experience a brief but welcome respite from it.
  6. By developing right mindfulness, we begin to experience selflessness first hand. Once we’ve experienced it, we can stand at the gate of our experience, guard the senses, and thus prevent identification and the sense of a separate self from arising again.
  7. Even as we do this, we must be on guard against comparison or disparagement of others, as that, too, is a form of self-making which ultimately leads to suffering.

The placing of identification or selfhood at the core of the Buddha’s teaching on suffering is not new. It is, however, often shied away from in both academic and Buddhist religious circles. In the academic world, it is due to the fear of a reductionist approach, which presents a fantastically complex set of beliefs and practices in an overly neat and simplistic way. This is a very real risk and it would indeed be unscientific to ignore the myriad of details of Buddhist tradition that might not fit neatly into this picture. In the religious sphere, it seems, there is a general reluctance to either rephrase the Buddha in modern terms, or to reduce the Buddha’s teachings to simple, pragmatic insights because this approach takes away the charm of the noumenal and the grandeur of the Buddha as a semi-divine figure.

My contention is, however, that there is a basic integrity and coherence to the Buddha’s teachings which both the researcher and the practitioner ignore at their peril. Saying this is not the same as ignoring the myriad concrete elements that make up the Pali canon, nor is it to attribute anything to the historical Buddha that we do not grant any modern philosopher: that while using a myriad of different metaphors, terms, and stories the Buddha was teaching a subtle but essentially comprehensible and integrated theory of suffering and how to end it, and that the challenge in trying to distill it to its basic tenets, while great, is not by necessity impossible.





Sources in Translation


  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.), In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Wisdom Publications, Somerville, Massachusetts, 2005.
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Kindle Edition), Wisdom Publications, Somerville Massachusetts, 2000.
  • Nanamoli, Bhikkhu and Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.), The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications, Somerville Massachusetts, 1995.
  • Olendzki, Andrew (trans.), Vipallasa Sutta: Distortions of the Mind, © Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 4 August 2010, retrieved from:
  • Pesala, Bhikkhu (trans.), The Debate Of King Milinda, Inward Path, Penang Malaysia, 2001.
  • Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (trans.), Ubbiri: Groups of Three Verses, (Thig 3), Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 4 August 2010, retrieved from:
  • Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (trans.), Sunakkhatta Sutta: To Sunakkhatta (MN 105), Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, retrieved from:
  • Walshe, Maurice (trans.), The Long Discourses of the Buddha (Kindle Edition), Wisdom Publications, Somerville Massachusetts, 1987.


Modern Research


  • Arbel, Keren, “The Liberative Role of Jhānic Joy (Pīti) and Pleasure (Sukha) in the Early Buddhist Path to Awakening,” in Buddhist Studies Review, 32.2 (2015), Equinox Publishing, Sheffield, United Kingdom.
  • Degrazia, David, “Suffering” in Rutledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge, London, Retrieved September 6th, 2012, retrieved from
  • Gethin, Rupert, The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.
  • Olendzski, Andrew, “Self is a Verb” in Unlimiting Mind, Wisdom Publications, Somerville Massachusetts, 2010.
  • Payne, Richard K., “Soul as Process: Buddhist Reflections on Mark Graves’ Mind, Brain and the Elusive Soul” in Pastoral Psychol, 2011, Springer, Berlin.
  • Williams, Paul, Buddhist Thought: A complete introduction to the Indian tradition, Routledge, New York, 2000.